WITH MATHIEU KARSENTI
During this interview, I change seats, place myself in front of another artist and ask him the questions I wish people asked me. Today, I speak to the French composer Mathieu Karsenti who has just released Under Piano Skies, his first solo release which focuses on the piano.
Mathieu, give us an update on your current achievements and successes?
2021 has been an interesting year for me. Aside from leaving London after twenty-seven years, I was busy with a few film and TV projects. Whilst releasing Exchanges back in February, I was playing around with vocal ideas, reaching out to a few singers and exploring incorporating voices in a freeform structure, more in an ambient way. This project is still on-going and on the back-burner for now because I also started developing ideas for a quartet of two cellos, one violin and one viola. I am exploring textures for four distinct melodic lines, how they can co-exist and speak to each other. I also put the finishing touches to some Nocturnes pieces for strings and woodwinds, to be released soon I hope.
And then through the Haruki project and meeting Marie Awadis, I got really inspired to compose for the piano. This I had not planned to do but I did think it would be good for me to try out some piano ideas at some point. I had no idea how I would approach it as the piano is an instrument that covers everything all at once: bass, chords, melody, mid-range notes… a mini orchestra! Lots to think about! A few sketches later, and I had the basis for four tracks I was happy with — that led me onto Under Piano Skies.
What about Under Piano Skies, your latest solo project?
The direction throughout what I do is obviously impressionistic for want of a better word. I have been listening to Debussy and Ravel for a long time but I also got very inspired (as always) by Sir John Tavener’s piano works: “In Memory of Two Cats” is just gorgeous, “Pratirupa” and “Ypakoë” just sublime. My attempts are very modest, in fact so much so that I was composing on my laptop with a 25-keys mini keyboard because that is all I had packed after leaving the UK! What I wanted to do was to capture atmospheres, meditations but also internal abstract landscapes. And as always, my starting point is a melodic line, an implied tonality rather than full chords. Bit by bit, a concept was forming and visually I was thinking of clouds, skies, rain, weather incidents (hence the name and the look of the release). Also my mother had painted some cloud oil paintings that seemed to fit in visually with what I was doing musically. This ended up becoming the cover for the EP.
What have been the challenges in writing for piano rather than strings?
Other than the slight limitation of using a 25-keys mini keyboard, the challenge was to not overthink what I was doing! When you first work with an instrument, you can get a little self-conscious. In the end, I had to shut my brain off and react instinctively. With strings, I can create a sense of atmosphere by holding notes and building melodies on top. With the percussiveness of the piano, you have to find other ways. I loved how Debussy used the sustain pedal to blur notes together, it is ambient and atmospheric and that is definitely something I wanted to try out. And then I could develop more contrapuntal ideas — Tavener provides some beautiful counterpoints in “Ypakoë” — offsetting chords with one or two broken melodic ideas. The piano is such a fascinating instrument that I ended up composing a total of sixteen pieces (and more), to be released over time, a small body of work.
What has it been like to collaborate with Marie Awadis, the pianist and performer?
Meeting Marie Awadis has been fantastic and I have to thank you for it! As I mentioned, we met on the Haruki project and she has been so supportive of my piano explorations! Her musicianship and artistic and creative sensibilities are so great that it was a blessing that she would be interested in this piano journey of mine. Through her interpretation of the pieces, she brought life, passion and artistry and made them into something I did not think I would be able to achieve. When you compose on your own and you are using plugins, you are relying on your imagination for how the real thing sounds like, to accept or reject a piece. Also, not being a pianist, I did have to think hard about how the pieces would be played properly and I wrote scores to convey specific ideas to Marie.
After a couple of recordings from Marie, it gave me the confidence to pursue ideas further. Really, I am very grateful for this chance Instagram meeting via a shared love of Murakami’s work!
There has been a noticeable change of direction in your creativity over the past projects — can you tell us more about it?
To me, it is all part of the same universe (we use that word a lot more in French) of what I am doing. The change of direction is only really a change of instrumentation because I am curious to explore what I would do. I like to challenge and push myself whether I am using ambient textures, strings, Kora or piano. I think if one focuses on each release, of course it may feel like I am changing directions a lot but if one zooms out, it becomes obvious that it is all part of the same creative output. I am not a technically advanced musician (the instrument I play the best is probably the guitar) so that opens windows into other possibilities. I am an adventurer in sound and I also get very excited about working with musicians. For instance with Marie, it was liberating to record her without a click track. Using a click has become the norm, especially in film scoring, because it makes it easier to sync music to pictures or to overdub instruments. But instead I used her internal metronome and anything I added on top was synced to her. It is more flowing, freer sounding and I want to do more of that in the future!
How would you define your artistic direction; are you following a particular roadmap, or letting creativity transport you?
To add to what I said above, I feel my artistic direction is always to paint musical pictures. These can be quite abstract but they are also open-minded. You can always find emotion in them, but it is all open to personal interpretation. I always want the listener to find what they want in my music rather than me dictating to them how they should feel. In fact, when Marie was recording my pieces I told her to imagine a painting where you would have different moments, lightness and darkness, different colours or textures on the canvas, different entities co-existing but creating a whole picture. That is what my music does. And it always seems to do that whichever instrument I compose for. Most of the time my process is instinctual, I let creativity take me where it feels right. If there is a roadmap, it is to go where my heart wants to go and explore at that particular moment.
So after Under Piano Skies what’s next?
As I mentioned, I have ended up composing sixteen piano pieces in total that I am happy with. The first eight are already recorded, so I am aiming to release the follow-up to Under Piano Skies not long after it. The remaining eight will follow probably in 2022. I also have this vocal project that is on-going and my Nocturnes which I am keen to share pretty soon. I also want to explore working with baroque instruments at some point. I love the baroque sound, it is softer and much more personal… Let’s see!
Thanks very much Mathieu. Last one for the road — one book, one album, one film —, tell us about your latest cultural pearls?
I am currently hooked on Harlen Coben’s work after watching a few Netflix adapted series from his novels: crime, intrigue, unpredictability, very gripping stuff!: Gone for Good and Win.
One film: I recently watched The Velvet Underground, a new documentary by Todd Haynes. I was a fan of The VU and Lou Reed and it was great to watch this film delve deeper into their history, their conflicts and the development of their music. I always felt Lou Reed’s sensitivity through his music and the fact he could convey so much with so little musically.
One album: Sir John Tavener’s Piano Music; containing Ypakoë, Pratirupa, Palin and Mandoodles. I find Tavener’s music enthralling and exhilarating and here with only one piano, he takes you to so many amazing places musically. I always find something in his music that inspires me to create more.
Bouncing on Mathieu’ words, Tavener’s piano music is indeed something to pay attention to and dig in if not done already! Read my review of Under Piano Skies.